Each day at about 6pm the soft light of dusk across Libertad Square in the city of Matanzas, 90 kilometres east of Havana, is punctured by the raucous squeal of thousands of blackbirds jostling for a night-time perch. The air is thick with fumes from grumbling Buicks, Dodges and 1980s-model Ladas, the clunky Soviet car brand as ubiquitous across Cuba as the pre-embargo American classics.
In a theatre on one side of the square a samba band’s rehearsals add to the cacophony, while across the way a military guard patrols the entrance to the town’s municipal headquarters in vigilant silence. Later, the band spills into the square, replacing the blackbirds’ screech and sparking an impromptu dance session among appreciative locals.
But not everyone is moving to the traditional groove. Huddled in the square’s centre around a statue of Jose Marti – the 19th century patriot upon whose ideology of self-determination Fidel Castro based his 1959 revolution – the faces of about a dozen young people are lit by the reflection of phones and tablets.
But not everyone is moving to the traditional groove
The internet has been available in Cuba for some 20 years, but prohibitive costs and government restrictions prevented the vast majority of citizens from logging on. Over the past eight years under the leadership of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, the obstacles started to diminish. Private homes remain shut out. But in 2015 the government opened numerous wi-fi hotspots, including in Libertad Square, where those fortunate enough to own or have access to a device – and have purchased an internet pass from the state-run communications provider – come to join the information revolution.
The juxtaposition of culturally iconic music, sputtering vintage cars and the glare of a nationalist hero over millennials transfixed by Google, Skype and Facebook serves as a poignant indicator of the precipice upon which Cuba now stands.
With the death of Fidel Castro late last year, the symbolic dictatorial authority is gone, beginning a new chapter in the country’s fascinating story. The faded pastel propaganda plastered on facades nationwide proclaiming the virtues of Castro’s socialist revolution may remain conspicuous for some time. But the winds of change around the island state have been brewing and seem destined now to accelerate like a fomenting Caribbean hurricane.
Aside from Raul Castro’s comparatively progressive agenda since 2008, which included tacit approval of private enterprise – providing desperately-needed tax revenue – there seems to be little comprehension of the pending seismic shift as the government slowly but surely loosens restrictions on foreign investment.
With the death of Fidel Castro late last year, the symbolic dictatorial authority is gone, beginning a new chapter in the country’s fascinating story
US-based Cubans, who so vehemently celebrated Castro’s demise, have been buying property indirectly in Havana for years, driving up prices and helping fuel a chronic housing shortage. A US-owned hotel, the Four Points, opened in Havana in June 2016, and the US embassy reopened in 2015.
But this is likely to be chickenfeed compared to what lies on the horizon. As tensions with the US continue to thaw – backed conditionally by president Donald Trump – and the 56-year embargo (known as ‘the blockade’ by Cubans) is rescinded little by little, the behemoth just 140 kilometres to the north, having – to use our guide’s words – “asphyxiated Cuba” for half a century, seems set to transform the country in a profound way.
“Things are moving very slowly, but we are hoping it speeds up soon,” an entrepreneurial Brazil-based American geologist told me as we queued for an internet card one month before Castro’s death.
“We have only diplomatic relations with Cuba at the moment, no official business relations. And, dealing with the government here is extremely difficult. But I think they’re starting to realise they have no choice but to open up. The country needs money desperately.”
When I put to him that “opening up” could challenge Cuba’s apparent social order, his answer is telling.
“Of course, it will,” he says. “There is no doubt the population will be very quickly divided between those who are well connected and have access to business opportunities and those who don’t. There will be two economies and those who are left behind, which is the overwhelming majority, will be in very bad shape.”
There will be two economies and those who are left behind, which is the overwhelming majority, will be in very bad shape.
CUBA is already in bad shape. On the face of it, it is hard to argue with our guide’s graphic description of the effects of the embargo which, in its latest incarnation, basically, excludes from the US any company that does business with Cuba.
Locals are fiercely proud that all citizens receive free health services and education. They speak glowingly about Cuba’s achievement in virtually eliminating homelessness, drug use and malnourishment. But that’s about where privilege ends.
Throughout our two-week nationwide cycling trip, as some of the last tourists to see Cuba before Castro’s death, we gained a unique perspective on life in the Marxist-Leninist one-party state and the reality was far less romantic than travel brochures might suggest.
Our adventure took us from the capital across Matanzas province to the Bay of Pigs, where CIA-backed Cuban Americans staged an infamous invasion in 1961. From the southern town of Cienfuegos, we rode around the Escambray Mountains to Trinidad, declared in 1988 a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best preserved colonial town in Cuba.
We ventured to the inland city of Sancti Spiritus, past sugar mill villages, tobacco and coffee plantations and dairy farms, to Camaguey and the revolutionary hub of Bayamo. After riding through the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where Castro hid before launching his coup, we arrived in the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the ‘city of heroes’, Castro’s final resting place.
Santiago is home to the Moncada Barracks, the garrison attacked by Castro’s men on 26 July, 1953, sparking the revolution and giving rise to the ‘26 de Julio’ movement by which the uprising became known. Heading back to Havana, we visited Santa Clara, where the Argentine guerrilla leader Che Guevara orchestrated the ambush of a train carrying hundreds of government troops, setting in motion the final throes of General Fulgencio Batista’s tyrannical US-backed regime and lifting Guevara to deity status among Cubans.
Throughout the nation, despite diverse ethnicities, cultures and celebrated local histories, scarcity and degradation dominate. From coast to coast, supermarket shelves are half bare and, of the products available, anything imported is extremely expensive.
A 750-millilitre bottle of cooking oil costs nearly half the monthly minimum wage. Shops, restaurants and cafes, almost exclusively government-owned, are bereft of anything but the basics of their craft. Ingredients rarely range beyond rice, beans, meat and local fruits. Queuing for anything and everything is simply part of life.
Shortages aside, the spin offs of decades under socialism have left a population with little or no incentive to innovate or compete. There are ways to get ahead. But it’s tough. People can earn more money if they work longer hours, in areas away from home or take on a second job. Our guide’s mother, a dentist, works as a manicurist to supplement her income. Yet, even if there is money to spare, there is nothing much to spend it on.
Housing and transport, once provided in abundance by the government, are now accepted by locals as crisis issues. Countless buildings nationwide are either in disrepair or abandoned. Generations of family members often live together, some in the cities bribing inspectors in order to stay in accommodation designated to be demolished.
Generations of family members often live together, some in the cities bribing inspectors in order to stay in accommodation designated to be demolished.
Rural roads, while generally in fair shape, service about as many horses and carts as cars. Scores of people are forced to hitch-hike or pay for lifts from ‘Transportista Privado’ – truck drivers given permission by the authorities to act as pseudo-public transport.
In town after town throughout the countryside people live a barren existence. Men toil in fields yielding coffee, bananas or sugarcane before riding on horseback to pick up another day’s dirt-cheap local rum. Women tend to children and keep houses functioning without running water and few if any appliances. The highlight of a week might be a pizza out, Sunday morning at church or a trip to the cinema.
The hardships are unmistakeable. Yet, countering them for so long has been a steady unifying force that seems to stretch beyond materialism. Cubans have long known their political system is not perfect. They have been aware, in the main, that their living standards could and should be higher. They know their stubborn leadership over decades cost them closer ties with some other nations.
There is no media freedom, demonstrations of alternate views or freedom of expression. But most Cubans have come to accept the doctrine that human rights are defined by access to universal health care and education, rather than the right to dissent.
Ultimately, whatever repression the people are aware of or encounter, the overwhelming sense of dignity and honour restored to them by the revolution after centuries of pillage by Spanish and, later, US colonialism has weathered storms and kept a dogged nation composed.
SUCH DEVOTION TO the system has been all the more remarkable given that the standard of living used to be quite high. For 30 years after the revolution Cuba fed off the Soviet Union, providing citizens with a relatively fortunate lifestyle.
After getting a cold shoulder from President Dwight Eisenhower on a visit to the US shortly after taking power, and then the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Castro formed a relationship of convenience with Nikita Khrushchev, which led to the establishment of economic and military ties with the USSR.
Throughout the late 1970s Soviet investment poured in for the development of factories and technological industries, and subsidies protected Cuban agriculture and trade. By 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the link between the two nations reached its peak. Gorbachev’s reformist agenda, however – openly criticised by Castro – foretold of troubles in the relationship.
Gorbachev’s shift toward disarmament and a more market-based Soviet economy lessened Cuba’s strategic western hemisphere importance. As the USSR’s debt crisis increased in the late-80s, its ability to sustain support for Cuba disintegrated. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was effectively set adrift, directionless and all-but friendless.
What followed was branded by Castro in August 1990 as “The Special Period”, a time in Cuban history relayed by locals with a curious mixture of lament, anger and pride. With 80 per cent of its export and import markets in eastern Europe obliterated, oil, food and medical supplies quickly dwindled.
Industrial capacity plummeted as energy supplies dried up almost overnight. Roads became bare as rising world oil prices and falling sugar values conspired to make a bad situation worse. Rationing was introduced and malnutrition spread, leading some countries to send vital aid.
Rationing was introduced and malnutrition spread, leading some countries to send vital aid.
In 1992, the “asphyxiation” of Cuba by the US tightened when President George Bush enacted additional sanctions, including banning ships involved in Cuban trade from berthing in the US for six months, and the passing of the Cuba Democracy Act, which gave Bush the power to veto economic assistance and pull out of trade agreements with any country assisting Cuba.
US-based Cubans visiting relatives were banned from carrying any more than 20 kilograms of luggage, lest they took clothes or medicine. A black market for currency and basic goods began to flourish. In 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan American Games and Castro, who had asked young people to help build facilities, rewarded each with an apartment. As the decade progressed, such luxuries became unthinkable.
Cuba spent the 1990s in the wilderness, while, perhaps perversely, observers analysed a forced nation-sized experiment in post-oil society, mass health outcomes of an immediately altered diet, and the social impacts of extreme economic upheaval. Some private enterprise was embraced as a necessity, new industries were attempted and hotels were built. But it was not until after the turn of the century that the weight of the world began to lift, with the US taking its foot off Cuba’s throat and new markets opening up, particularly in China and through Castro’s cosy relationship with Hugo Chavez, president of oil-rich Venezuela.
IN SUCH a desperate climate, the regime’s remarkable resilience was proved. However, an even bigger threat to the status quo is about to descend and how the system copes is anyone’s guess.
Following Castro’s death, state media said Cubans throughout the country would be invited to pay homage by signing a “solemn oath of complying with the concept of the revolution.” Cubans say they are not communist, socialist or capitalist, they are `Fidelist`. That’s why they have struggled to comprehend Cuba without Castro. That struggle is now an imperative.
In Havana, on the final night of our trip, I stayed in a private casa owned by a Canadian ex-pat named Phillip, whose political views – undoubtedly representative of a till-now silent section of society – may be emblematic of Cuba’s pending transformation and reckoning with its past.
He labelled Castro a “narcissist”, Fidelism “a cop-out” and those faded pastel revolutionary billboards “blatant propaganda”. After ranting about the dysfunction of starting his business, getting workers to actually work, acquiring building materials and gaining the necessary documentation to start trading, he spoke in disgust of a nation he claimed had “missed countless opportunities” to progress and make its citizens’ lives better, a nation forcibly glued together by fear and repression.
What do you think Cuba will be like after Fidel dies, I asked him. “It’s impossible to tell. Your guess is as good as mine,” he replied. “But one thing is certain. When the doors start opening up, which they have to do, the country will be changed forever.”
Written by David Sygall.
Image Credit: All photos by David Sygall
Layout by James Daly